Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Changing to daylight

This week I started working daylight, 4x10 hour days. This is a big change after nearly 5 years of night shift. Instead of getting off work and going directly to bed, I'm getting off work and having hours to kill before sleep. Then I get up shortly before going into work.

How does this affect a van dweller like me? First off, I'm getting off work as the sun is preparing to set. I still have the heat  from the day in the van, but hopefully on the downward slope. I might have to run the generator and air conditioner a bit in the beginning to get things cooled down. Then it should continue to cool during the night. I won't have to sleep through the daylight seeping into the van. Ultimately, it will definitely help during spring and summer. During the winter.. hopefully it won't get too cold at night. I guess we'll see how that plays out.

My first night, Monday, I went to flip on a light and it didn't work. I have two lights in the van. One is mounted "permanently" over the desk. The other is a fluorescent drop light plugged into a cigarette lighter. The power for both of these is provided from my solar/battery system. That system is 24V and I have a 24V to 12V converter. I tried both lights and neither worked. I also tried my exhaust fan that is connected to the same system. No dice. At this point, it was already getting dark in the van and I have hours till bed - no lights. 

I use my cell phone to dig out a multimeter and connect it. I get a nice 12V. I test my appliances again, still no luck. I disconnect all of them, then try each one at a time with still no luck. Finally, I give up and watch some shows on Hulu until it's time for bed. 

Today I did some more troubleshooting. Even with a load attached, I was still getting 12V. Eventually I discovered a loose ground. I have two grounding bars - one stand alone that the batteries and 12V downverter connect to, and another that sits on top of my fuse block.  The two are tied together with a wire. My devices use the grounding bock on the fuse block. Measuring the voltage between positive and that ground only gave me +5V. Tightening the ground returned me to 12V and allowed me to power all my devices at once. 

This means that tomorrow, I will be able to do something I didn't do Monday or Tuesday - run the exhaust fan all day. There should be plenty of sunlight to power the fan without touching the batteries. That will help keep the van from cooking up into the 90s like it did today. I  may still need to run the air conditioner off of the generator for a while, but hopefully not for long.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Charger Replaced

I gave Xantrex a call and they walked me through some troubleshooting steps. One interesting thing was to unplug it for 10 minutes and then connect the batter first. "Sometimes if you connect the PV first, the micro-controller locks up." was an interesting factoid. However, they eventually concurred with my theory, which is that the controller is no longer working.

Today, I received the replacement controller and put it in place. Right away, it started charging the batteries back up. With the old controller -or- no load on the PV connections, I get around 40V.  However, once I connect those wires to the charge controller and it starts charging, that voltage drops to 24.2V, which is a good sign. Now, I just need to send the old controller back.

I also brought the generator down and hooked that back up. So I will be able to run the generator and air conditioner over the summer. I still plan on further insulating the van, covering the windows and separating the cab from the the living area. But I'm not going to try to get the A/C working off of batteries and solar.

A major change for me this summer will be me moving to a daylight position. So I will not really be in the van much during daylight hours, just for sleeping at night. This should be an advantage to me during the summer months as I will not have to contend with direct sunlight. Obviously, there will be some disadvantage during the winter, but I think I can deal with that.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Back into Spring

March 2012 makes 31 months of camping at work. Over the winter, I haven't had to run electricity, and my only purchase was $7 (actually $5.98 + tax, but I round up) for two propane bottles. For most of the winter, I used one left over from last year, and I'm currently on the first one of my purchase. Since we're getting back into 60F+ weather, I suspect I won't need the second bottle.

Here is a quick snapshot of my savings, and as always, the spreadsheet is available.

31 Months Van
Equipment: $5500
Operating: $1380
Total: $6,879
Equipment Average: $178
Operating Average: $45
E+O Average: $222
31 Months Apartment
Rent + Utils: $600/month
Total: $18,600

Savings: $11,720

Over the winter, I haven't needed any electricity, but I've been observing that my batteries haven't been charging properly. I assumed that this was a problem with the batteries themselves. However, today I went ahead and disconnected all the wires and measured the voltage of each battery. They are all reading 12.5 and when combined, 24.8, so they seem fine. After disconnectng and reconnecting the inverter, I was able to power it on, and I can power the light and fan from the batteries. I then measured voltage from the solar panels. The PV array is putting out around 40V, which is pretty good. My Xantrex C35 can handle up to 55V, so we are well within limits. The problem is when I measure the voltage on the Load/Battery terminal from the C35. The C35 is putting out only 0.1V, which is bad.

I checked my history, the the C35 arrived at my house on 3/12/2010 with a 2-year warranty. I am very glad I decided to fully troubleshoot the system today, as it allowed me to put in a warranty request and get an RMA number before the 12th. I will find out this week if it will still fall under warranty (the warranty language only requires notification within the warranty period). Hopefully they don't attempt to finagle their way out. The device hasn't been working for at least a month, if not more.